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à la naissance de l’ethnologie française

Les missions ethnographiques en Afrique subsaharienne (1928-1939)

à la naissance de l’ethnologie française

Les missions ethnographiques en Afrique subsaharienne (1928-1939)

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Aims and genesis of this site

The site At the Origins of French Ethnology: Ethnographic Missions in Sub-Saharan Africa (1928-1939) is the result of a collaboration between three partners: the Éric-de-Dampierre Library of the Centre for Ethnology and Comparative Sociology, the National Library of France and the Quai Branly - Jacques Chirac Museum. It falls within the thematic branch “Active Knowledge of the Past: Practices and Transmission Tools” of the scientific program Pasts in the Present, coordinated by Paris Nanterre University. This project has two objectives: to shed light on the institutionalization of French ethnology, and to promote each of the partners’ ethnographic collections or archives by providing the public with access to a range of documents and analyses relating to the missions undertaken in sub-Saharan Africa by the new generation of professional ethnologists.


Ethnographic missions and the institutionalization of French ethnology

Between 1928 and 1939, some ten expeditions to Africa were organized by students of the Institute of Ethnology (Institut d’ethnologie), an academic institution founded in Paris in 1925. For French students pursuing careers as ethnologists, travelling to an exotic field site or, even better, leading an ethnographic mission, had become an essential step in their professional development, as well as a means of proving their abilities. Marcel Griaule, one of the first students of the Institute of Ethnology, was the head of most of these missions until 1942, when he was elected to the French university’s first chair of ethnology.

Through the attention they attracted from the media, as well as through their methods and the quantity of materials they brought back, these group expeditions contributed to the recognition of French ethnology and the development of its two leading institutions: the Institution of Ethnology (already mentioned) and the Trocadero Ethnology Museum (Musée d’ethnographie du Trocadéro), renovated in 1928 and replaced by the Museum of Man in 1938. The missions of the 1930s were like a publicity cavalcade for the two scientific institutions that sponsored them: they tested and validated the field methods taught by Marcel Mauss and Marcel Cohen at the Institute of Ethnology; they filled museum showcases at the Museum of Ethnography and the Museum of Man (musée de l’Homme) thanks to the thousands of objects brought back; and finally they attracted adherence or at least support from politicians and the media, benefiting from the national craze for the “French colonial empire”.

Emblematic for a variety of reasons, the famous trans-African Dakar-Djibouti mission (1931-1933) is the only French ethnographic mission to be the subject of a law passed by parliament. This national consecration ensured that it would have the cooperation of the colonial administration, but Dakar-Djibouti also used an intensive press campaign and a few media “coups” to secure financial support from several sponsors and patrons. Furthermore, this mission, like all of those directed by Marcel Griaule, combined multidisciplinarity, rigorous methods, scientific feats, adventurous explorations and cultural preservation. The image it created of ethnologists was that of dynamic, intrepid, knowledgeable young people, discoverers and archivists of faraway societies that had well-preserved traditions.

Most of these missions accompanied the widespread enthusiasm for Africanism and shared other points in common that were typical of the early days of French ethnology, particularly the significant participation of women, the desire to promote all cultures without placing them in a hierarchy, the exploitation of the colonial context, the desire to grab everything through massive collections, the priority given to the study of populations that were still uninfluenced by Europe and, conversely, the exclusion of urban areas and colonization from the ethnographic works.

The many texts on the site—around fifty today, soon to number one hundred—were written by researchers from various disciplines, describing each of these ethnographic missions, the actors on the ground (both European and African), their methods, their institutional partners and their links with the worlds of art, literature, media and politics. 


Promotion of ethnographic archives and collections

Among the items made available on this site, ethnographic archives and collections are by far the primary source of information and illustration. Most of these field materials are currently conserved by the project’s three partner institutions: the Ethiopian manuscripts are at the National Library of France (Bibliothèque nationale de France), the objects and paintings are at the Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac Museum  (Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac), and the field notes are housed at the Éric-de-Dampierre Library within the Centre for Ethnology and Comparative Sociology (Laboratoire d’ethnologie et de sociologie comparative, LESC), which is overseeing the project. The latter two institutions both conserve photographs taken during the missions. The complementary nature of these archive and museum resources, their extensive digitization and a shared desire to promote them is making it possible to virtually assemble records, notebooks, objects and photographs by creating links between the various databases and archival collections.

Other archival sources and all of the bibliographical references on these ethnographic missions have also been tagged and in many cases localized in order to facilitate the research of those who are working on these questions. For the same reasons, publications by members of the various missions are indexed, some exhaustively, and many of them are accessible in their entirety on the website of the National Library of France or on the HAL-SHS archive.

Several of the Éric-de-Dampierre Library’s archival collections—which assemble all of the documents brought back by a mission or by one of its members—played an essential role in the genesis of this project: those of Dakar-Djibouti, Marcel-Griaule, Gaston-Louis-Roux, Denise-Paulme, André-Schaeffner, Solange-de-Ganay and Jean-Paul-Lebeuf. Their collection, classification and digitization, and the studies conducted on them, gave rise to extensive ethical and epistemological reflection on how they might be promoted, posted online or returned. Since 1999, these questions have been discussed by all of the people involved—from professionals who handle these archives to researchers who consult them—over the course of around ten conferences or study days organized at Paris Nanterre University. The most recent of these were entitled “Ethnologists Grapple with Archives” (2007), “Archives and Digitization” (2010), “Ethnographic Archives and Artistic Creation” (2012), “The Field Materials of Ethnologists in Europe (2013) and “Ethnologists’ Archives: What Purpose Do They Serve?” (2014)[1].

These previous works have shown the ethical and scientific pitfalls of systematically and fully posting field data online. This choice presents the risk of infringing upon the rights of ethnographers and the people they studied by revealing to everyone images and writings that were not intended for the public, for example nude photographs, private details, sensitive information, defamatory statements and incorrect data. Furthermore, when internet users browse a collection of ethnographic archives, unless they are researchers, they will not have the necessary skills or tools to interpret the documents critically. They end up treating the collection as a databank on one population or another, extracting isolated pieces of information without considering the context in which they were produced or their possible methodological biases.

To circumvent these problems, this site offers an alternative to placing archival collections online. It favors the curation of a selection of digital documents representative of different works, methods or notation systems characteristic of a mission or ethnologist. Since these samples serve as evidence and illustrations of analyses that partly explain their content or form, this choice makes it possible to emphasize and contextualize the particular archives from which they were extracted, in conformance with the project’s guiding ethical principles.

History of a logo

The logo of the site At the Origins of French Ethnology has two links to the French ethnographic missions to sub-Saharan Africa. Representing an antelope (walu) mask, this Dogon painting of the rocky canopy in Songo was copied in 1931 by members of the Dakar-Djibouti expedition. Then in 1935, this stylised walu was reproduced on two metal panels attached to the fenders of one of the two Renault vans used by the Sahara-Sudan mission. Thus emblazoned, the vehicle was given the name Walu, and at the end of the trip one of its passengers—Solange de Ganay—unscrewed one of the two panels and preserved this emblematic painting in her archives, which are now held by the Éric-de-Dampierre Library.

In the context of the Griaule missions of the 1930s, this van blazon evokes not only the strength and speed of the walou antelope and the van of the same name, but it also testifies to the ethnographers’ special interest in Dogon masks. The original painting illustrated Marcel Griaule’s thesis, Masques dogons, published in 1938 (see fig. 182D p. 639).


[1. On these questions, see also the following works: the special issue “Archives et anthropologie” coordinated by Jean Jamin and Françoise Zonabend (Gradhiva, 30/31, 2001/2002); the thematic issue “L’ethnologue aux prises avec les archives” edited by Antoinette Molinié and Marie-Dominique Mouton (Ateliers du LESC, 32, 2008,; “Ethnographiques : Présence et questionnement des collections d’ethnographie”, edited by Marc Rochette and Guillaume Fau, Revue de la Bibliothèque nationale de France, no. 45, 2012.]